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How Arthur C. Clarke Defined the 20th Century

Kudo's for Clarke continue to pour in;

Published: March 20, 2008- International Herald Tribune

More than anyone else in the 20th century, Arthur C. Clarke, who died Wednesday, had a track record of being proven right.

"I don't know if the Wright brothers realized how quickly aircraft would pay for themselves," Clarke told me a couple of months ago when I visited him in Colombo, Sri Lanka. We were talking about space exploration and his belief that commercial spacecraft would soon become a reality, now that private entrepreneurs are getting involved. Over the next 50 years, he predicted, thousands would travel into orbit - and then, to the Moon and beyond.

Man may not have set foot on the Moon had it not been for Clarke. His 1952 book, "The Exploration of Space," was used by the rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun to convince President John F. Kennedy that it was possible to go to the Moon.

As is widely recognized, Clarke is a colossus of science fiction - the author of "2001: A Space Odyssey," and many other famous works. It is less well-known that Clarke was also one of the 20th century's pre-eminent visionaries. Without him, it's safe to say that there would be no direct TV, no satellite-routed ship-to-shore phone calls, and no global navigation systems. Our weather forecasts would be far less reliable.

We benefit from Clarke's contributions whenever we dress based on the weather forecast or use a GPS device to navigate our way. During World War II, when he was a young officer in the Royal Air Force in Britain, Clarke first thought of geostationary satellites as communications tools. Geostationary satellites are satellites whose orbital periods match the Earth's rotation. In 1945, Clarke proposed that geostationary satellites would be ideal telecommunications relays. They have since revolutionized communications and weather forecasting.

"I'm often asked why I didn't try to patent the idea of communications satellite," he said. "My answer is always, 'A patent is really a license to be sued.' "

"It's definitely my most important contribution," he told me, adding, "And maybe in a generation or so the space elevator will be considered equally important."

The space elevator - basically a huge cable connecting the Earth to space, along which payloads can be launched using electromagnetic vehicles - is another thing that Clarke has championed. He first wrote about it in 1978. Current plans call for a cable about 50,000 kilometers long.

"The chief expense of space travel when you build the space elevator is entertainment and in-flight movies," he joked.

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